Discernment / Ordinary Life / The Skill

Babylon Series: Part 14 Responding to shifting sand

“What has been is what will be and what has been done is what will be done,” the ancient Hebrew poet known as “the Preacher” wrote. “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). I’d like to quote that while walking the Preacher through an electronics superstore, complete with ringing cell phones, large screen TVs blazing, the latest gadgets overflowing shelves, and a Bad Religion CD playing over loudspeakers. I’d find that satisfying—even though I don’t like shopping—but there it is.

Of course, I’m doing the Preacher an injustice; he was wiser than my cynical sense of humor suggests (though I’d still love to do it). Read his exquisitely composed work in its entirety and his meaning is clear. He never meant that history was static, nor that human creativity had reached an end. He was arguing that because all people share an essential humanity, created in God’s image, the issues we face never change. Questions of reality, meaning, and morality are not simply optional topics for the few that like discussing that sort of thing. Who are we? What is the meaning of life? What happens at death? Is there a God? How do we determine right and wrong? Even those who don’t like philosophy come to some sort of conclusion about such things, if only subconsciously. Living requires it. The Preacher is correct: the basic questions and issues all humans face do not change.

Some Christians make an assumption at this point, however, that is mistaken. It is this: since the basic questions of life don’t change, and since the good news of Jesus doesn’t change, we can keep using the same arguments to convince each generation of the truth of Christianity. But that isn’t true.

Though the essential issues of human life never change, the specific questions raised about them can—and do—change over time. Which is why asking questions and listening with care are so important in a pluralistic world where our neighbors and friends hold beliefs and values different from our own. Each generation has unique formative experiences which mark them, and characterize their entire mind-set and perspective.

For many members of the postmodern generation who are not religious in the traditional sense, a shift has taken place in how they approach the issues of morality and meaning, and the resulting answers they find sufficient and satisfying. Thus, the answers and arguments that were compelling to my generation will be unconvincing to my grandchildren’s generation. If we respond to new questions with old arguments, we make Christianity appear irrelevant.

But let me get more specific.

Morality: a new relativism
Not too long ago, most conversations about morality got down to the question of whether there were absolutes, and how it was impossible to live according to relativism. Now, however, the discussion has shifted. Many who would argue that no religion has the final set of absolutes would also claim to hold strong notions of right and wrong. And to live according to them. Many are even convinced that their morality is superior to Christianity’s.

For example, in The Big Questions, philosopher Lou Marinoff distinguishes between “ethical relativism” and “meta-ethical relativism.” He not only distinguishes them, but speaks against the first:

A moral relativist believes that goodness, rightness, and justice are all relative to people’s beliefs. In other words, a moral relativist believes not only that the Christians whom Nero fed to the lions were justified in their faith and martyrdom, but also that Nero was justified in martyring them. Moral relativists believe it was a great tragedy that so many innocent civilians died on the hijacked airplanes and in the World Trade Center’s destruction, but they also believe that the hijackers were warriors who were justified in waging their jihad according to their rules. The spread of moral relativism, and its unfortunate political sponsorship by American and European centers of higher education, has brought much confusion to the Western world during the latter third of the twentieth century. Deprived of a moral compass, among other philosophical tools necessary for examining and understanding belief systems, millions of people find it difficult or impossible to establish a context for current events, no matter how horrific. This often adds travesty to tragedy(p. 14).

Marinoff explains that over the centuries various theories (he identifies 10) have been developed to sort out the difference between good and evil. Once we have come to understand these different approaches to morality, we can appreciate meta-ethical relativism:

Now that you have learned ten different ways of being good, you face a real paradox: how do you decide which ones are better, and which (if any) is best? The problem is that we can’t decide which theory of good is better or best until we know the meaning of good itself. If you were thoroughly indoctrinated early in your life, or if you have settled on a particular ethical theory for some other reason, then you don’t have this problem. But if you are a thoughtful person, you may conclude that no single ethical theory can be stretched to cover every moral contingency. The only alternative, then, is to suppose that different ethical systems work better in different situations. This approach is called meta-ethical relativism.

Meta-ethical relativism is not the same as ethical relativism, which supposes, subjectively, that anybody’s ethics are as valid as anybody else’s and, accordingly, that anything at all is permissible in a given situation. Ethical relativism says that Robin Hood is correct to believe that he is doing right, while the sheriff of Nottingham is also correct to believe that Robin Hood is doing wrong. If you have a problem viewing the very same action as both right and wrong, then you are not an ethical relativist.

But is there an objective perspective that provides a wiser and more trustworthy moral compass? That’s where meta-ethical relativism comes in to help us discover which ethical system among those mentioned above—and the unmentioned, and the variations on each—does three vital jobs. First, it must resonate with your moral intuitions. Second, it must mesh with your background experience of ethics. Third, it must help remedy the problem itself. There are no easy answers here, and there’s an art (as well as an effort) required to answer the question ‘Which ethical system do you think is best in your case—and why? (p. 46).

The mistake many people make in all this, Marinoff argues, is to imagine that ethics is a “subject like mathematics.” It isn’t, he says.

Simple algebraic equations (like x + 2 = 3) have unique solutions. There is one correct answer, which we can easily find, and infinitely many incorrect ones, which we can reject. Ethics more closely resembles two variable algebra, with equations like x + y = 3. Here we find infinitely many correct solutions, with interdependence between x and y. It makes no sense to ask, ‘What’s the correct value of x?’ unless you first specify a value for y. Similarly, people who wonder ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ need to specify something about their own moral intuitions, or their background ethical theories. Then we have a personalized context—your context—for exploring ‘rightness.’

In theory, there are any number of ways of thinking about goodness, rightness, and justice. In practice, one alternative may be more viable than others, but it has to make sense to you, resonate with your intuitions and experience, and function in your particular case. Sometimes you may have to choose between doing the right thing for the wrong reasons and doing the wrong thing for the right reasons. But in the end you have to take your own stand” (p. 26).

The technical terms—ethical relativism and meta-ethical relativism—aren’t necessarily widely used or known. The distinction Marinoff draws here is important, however, because people are living it and believing it.

The standard argument against ethical relativism is two-fold. First, it is self-defeating because if everything is relative, so is this initial assertion. And if there is no final right and wrong, there is no way to stand against the obvious evil which occurs all around us.

Not surprisingly, this two-fold argument is not compelling to those who have accepted some form of meta-ethical relativism. Nor do they necessarily feel their sense of morality is weak or inferior; indeed, they may be convinced it is sufficient, satisfying, and perhaps superior.

Meaning: a new significance
In a similar way, it used to be assumed that if there is no God, if we are nothing more than matter + energy in an impersonal universe, then there is no meaning to life. Which is neither sufficient nor satisfying, because human beings simply can’t live without a sense of significance.

But now consider this. In Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant, Christian historian Preston Jones (PhD, University of Ottowa), and Bad Religion musician and evolutionary biologist Greg Graffin (PhD, Cornell University) discuss the difference between proximate and ultimate meaning. By proximate meaning they are referring to a “sense of meaning or purpose derived from action in the observable world.” By ultimate meaning they are referring to a “sense of meaning or purpose derived from belief, and from acting on belief, in a reality beyond or greater than the observable world” (p. 40).

Graffin feels no need for a sense of ultimate meaning in life:

I have never concerned myself with ultimate meaning, but I have a deeply meaningful life. I am privileged to have a deep effect on the way lots of people think—most importantly for me, my two children. I have a wonderful circle of friends and a loving interpersonal relationship with my girlfriend. I was never baptized, never aware of a single story from the Good Book, never programmed by religious teachers, and never concerned about life after death. Rather, naturalism teaches one of the most important things in this world: there is only this life, so live wonderfully and meaningfully (p. 40).

Graffin is convinced his position makes more sense than the Christian’s insistence that God brings true, ultimate meaning to life.

It seems that most people want to believe there is more meaning in the universe than actually exists. There is a strong emotional drive to find meaning, which might be ‘hard-wired’ in our brains or a cultural universal found in all human societies perhaps. This drive leads many people to accept religion readily because theologies reassure us that indeed there is an ultimate meaning and an ultimate purpose to human life.

I never accepted such myths, probably because I was surrounded by skeptics in my upbringing. Yet still I believed that I led a meaningful life and that I mattered in some way. As I grew up I realized that I mattered a lot less than I thought. By this I mean only that as I grew more worldly and empathetic I learned that there is a world out there that exists and functions regardless of my presence and influence. To me, this is a part of growth and maturation, a humility that develops with age and experience.

I think there are all sorts of realities that we learn as we mature, and we are forced to rewrite our world views. I was never taught any of the traditional religious world views. That is the reason the world began to make sense for me rather late in life, during my studies of natural history at university. The world became more meaningful to me as I learned about the fragility and complexity of our ecological communities and geological processes. I felt like I was a part of a great biological tradition and I felt lucky to be able to witness the ‘grandeur of life’ with a deep appreciation for its intricacy and knowledge about its functioning. The deep sense of satisfaction I got, and still get, from studying and participating in nature, leaves me perfectly content with the proximate meaning of it all.

Even though I can’t formulate any ultimate meaning for it all—I know I am just a small part of it and I will soon be dead and so will my offspring—I know that the studying, teaching and sharing of natural history provides a lifetime of meaningful enterprise for me. I don’t feel empty or at any kind of loss from my conclusion that life has no ultimate purpose. Passing on proximately meaningful traditions and rituals is enough for me. It always has felt like enough for me. Maybe that will change, but I doubt it. As I have learned more I have felt an even greater pull toward my conclusion that there are no ultimates.

The so-called ‘existence’ of notions that there is more than this world alone I whole-heartedly reject. It might be that we are taught poorly as kids. It might be a symptom of our imperfect education that we are told there is an ultimate meaning to things. What if our society stopped passing along inaccuracies by removing such language from the learning curriculum? Would the notion of ultimate purpose cease to exist? I believe strongly that it would be virtually nonexistent in society. We can live with proximate purpose alone and still live fully satisfied lives without the mythology of ultimates. I believe humans would feel just as emotional and loving and caring in the absence of ultimates as they do going about carelessly thinking that a better world awaits them when they die. I think that we, like other social organisms, use proximate meaning and proximate purpose to get through life. Ultimates are an invention of theology, and one we cannot easily shake from our culture (p. 139-142).

Engaging the shift
We may be tempted to argue as Christians, of course, that both these positions are not real solutions at all to the great human dilemmas of morality and meaning. That meta-ethical relativism is still relativism, so that nothing, no matter how heinous, can truly be considered wrong or evil in a final, absolute sense of that term. That proximate meaning is not true meaning, in any ultimate way, but merely the passing sense of some meaning without any suitable foundation for it to rest on. And we may think of other challenges to raise.

And they might be worth raising. But I would suggest that we shouldn’t be surprised if our challenges aren’t very compelling to the people with whom we are talking. For whatever we happen to think of their position concerning morality and meaning, they find it both personally sufficient and satisfying. Perhaps our probing will cause them to reconsider their position, but then, perhaps not.

But if that is so, how do we proceed? How do we engage such friends with the gospel?

By remembering that the point is not winning arguments over morality and meaning. It might be that they sense no need there, and are unmoved by the biblical alternative, but that does not mean God can not still be at work drawing them to himself by his Spirit. It could be, for example, that their greatest need is to befriend a Christian who proves that not all Christians live narrow, judgmental, negative, withdrawn, uncreative lives.

Whatever the case, we must see this conversation as not at a standstill, but just beginning. We can eagerly learn philosophy from Marinoff and evolutionary theory and music from Graffin, and cherish them as friends. We can continue to ask probing questions about their views and we can welcome their challenges to what we believe. We can live authentic lives before them, think more deeply about all these issues, give the gift of unhurried time, and find winsome ways to share more of the biblical Story with them.

And we can remember that the final apologetic, as Francis Schaeffer wrote in The Mark of the Christian, is not developing a killer argument, but love. In fact, as John 17:21 teaches, if non-Christians can not see authentic love demonstrated by Christians, Jesus says we can not expect the world to believe that Christian faith is true and worth embracing.

And so we circle back to the fact that there is nothing new under the sun. Engaging our culture with the gospel is exactly what it has always been. It is about a quality of life, a reality of Christian love and community which reflects grace with such authenticity that we demonstrate, not perfectly but substantially, that God exists and that he can be known through Christ.